By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, June 6 (Reuters) - Users of a digital videorecorder sued media companies on Thursday to win a guaranteethat they are not breaking the law when they skip commercialsand record television programs for later viewing.
Five users of SONICblue Inc.'s ReplayTV said intheir lawsuit that they fear media companies will sue them forusing the device, which is essentially a digital version of aVCR.
The plaintiffs filed the suit in the U.S. District Courtfor the Central District of California, the same federal courtin Los Angeles that is hearing a complaint from movie andtelevision studios against SONICblue. The studios charge thatReplayTV allows customers to violate their copyrights byskipping commercials, sending programs over the Internet andallowing customers to amass vast digital libraries ofprogramming.
Hollywood has struggled in recent years to cope withemerging digital technologies such as the Napster song-swappingsystem that they fear could allow users to make an infinitenumber of perfect copies of movies, music, software and othercopyrighted items.
Media executives have said that skipping commercialsamounts to stealing, and won a motion, since reversed, thatwould have required the manufacturer to monitor the viewinghabits of its customers.
According to the SONICblue Web site, users can sendprograms to other ReplayTV units on a home network, and toother ReplayTV units outside the home at slower speeds.
In a conference call with reporters, users said they werenot engaged in piracy but instead used the device to save showsfor later viewing and screen out commercials when children werewatching.
"I'm just trying to exercise my normal rights in terms ofvideo recording, just like I can with my videocassetterecorder," said Craig Newmark, a plaintiff who runs thecraigslist.org community Web site.
Newmark said he liked to watch TV programs on his laptopcomputer, a use not supported by SONICblue but made possiblethrough third-party software.
In trying to protect its programs from widespreadbootlegging, Hollywood has overstepped its bounds and infringedon consumers' long-established "fair use" rights, said a lawyerfor the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties groupwhich is handling the case.
'THEY'RE IN OUR LIVING ROOMS'
"When it comes to television, we're not in their movietheaters, they're in our living rooms," said EFF seniorattorney Fred von Lohmann.
Representatives of media firms named in the case, includingWalt Disney Co. ., Viacom Inc. and AOL TimeWarner Inc. ., either referred calls to the MotionPicture Association of America, a trade group, or did notreturn calls.
The MPAA said in a statement that media firms have neverindicated any intent to sue individual ReplayTV users.
"This suit is nothing more than a publicity stunt," thestatement said.
A lawyer representing the plaintiffs said he hoped to jointhe suit with the case against SONICblue, so that a consumervoice could be heard in the copyright infringement suit. Thelawyer, Ira Rothken of the Rothken Law Firm, said he had noplans to expand the suit into a class action involvingSONICblue's 5,000 ReplayTV customers.
A SONICblue official said he welcomed the consumer suit andsaid he was currently meeting with his lawyer to see ifcombining the two cases would be a good idea.
"Basically we believe that consumers have fair-use rights,and everything consumers do with a ReplayTV is covered withfair use," said Andy Wolfe, chief technical officer atSONICblue.
A Democratic congressman said the consumer suit was awelcome development, and said he planned to introduce a billsoon that would protect consumers' fair-use rights.
"Surely there's no law that says you have to watchcommercials," said Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat.